Thursday, 24 December 2009

China's £750m aid 'not linked' to Cambodia's Uighur deportations
Published Date: 23 December 2009
By Cara Anna and Ben Blanchard

(CAAI News Media)

BEIJING has denied that £750 million in aid it gave to Cambodia was linked to the south-east Asian nation's deportation of 20 Muslims who had sought asylum there after fleeing ethnic violence in China's far west.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman yesterday insisted the aid package to Cambodia had "no strings attached".

Beijing has accused the Muslim Uighurs of being involved in ethnic rioting in July that pitted the minority group against the majorit

Cambodia deported the Uighurs on Saturday night, despite protests from the United States and the United Nations, whose refugee agency stationed people at the Phnom Penh airport in an attempt to physically stop the group's expulsion.

In statements to the UN refugee agency, the Uighurs said they had witnessed and documented the rioting – China's worst ethnic violence in decades – and that they feared lengthy imprisonment or even the death penalty if they were returned to China.

Chinese vice-president Xi Jinping, who arrived on a previously scheduled visit only hours after the Uighurs left, pledged the £750m to Cambodia on Monday and thanked the country for the deportations, a Cambodian government spokesman said.

The aid, including 14 agreements for grants and loans, ranges from help in building roads to repairing Buddhist temples.

Cambodia said it had expelled the Uighurs because they had entered the country illegally.

The Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman defended the deportations, called the handling of the Uighurs an "internal affair" and told reporters there had been "no strings attached" to the aid package.

"According to my knowledge, some are suspected of criminal cases," Jiang Yu told a regular news briefing yesterday. "Public security forces will handle the relevant outlaws. Their whereabouts, I have no information to offer you."

The UN's special raporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, expressed concern that the Uighurs could be abused.

Mr Nowak said Cambodia had violated its obligations under the world body's convention against torture.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights accused the Cambodian authorities of bowing to pressure and deporting the asylum seekers despite having given "strong assurances" it would be allowed to complete its investigation to determine their status.

The group of Uighurs had made the journey from China's far west through to Vietnam and then Cambodia with the help of a network of missionary groups. Two Uighurs fled before the group was forced to return to China.

Overseas activist groups say Uighurs in China have been rounded up in mass detentions since the summer's violence in the Xinjiang region, where tensions have long simmered between the minority Uighurs and the majority Han Chinese.

China has handed down at least 17 death sentences – mostly to Uighurs – over the rioting.

US-based Uighur leader Rebiya Kadeer, reviled by Beijing as a separatist, said Cambodia's deportation was "no doubt influenced by enormous Chinese pressure, backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in aid".

China is Cambodia's largest source of foreign direct investment, having pumped more than £2.7 billion into the impoverished nation. It also funds projects ranging from roads and irrigation to a new parliament building.

Ms Jiang insisted China had attached no strings to its aid.

"China and Cambodia have been maintaining a comprehensive and co-operative partnership. We provide what aid we can to Cambodia, and without any conditions," she said.

Six Questions for John Scott-Railton on Cambodia

(CAAI News Media)

By Ken Silverstein

While completing a master’s degree at the University of Michigan, John Scott-Railton helped develop “participatory mapping” projects aimed at protecting the fragile property rights of poor families living in Phnom Penh. While there he became an advocate of transparency in Cambodia’s natural resource management. Scott-Railton, now a doctoral student at the University of California-Los Angeles, has traveled extensively in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia. I recently asked him six questions about the political situation in Cambodia and the role there of the international community. (Note: For a look at the apparel industry in Cambodia, which is promoted by industry as the “anti-sweatshop country,” see my piece in the January issue of Harper’s.)

1. In theory, Cambodia has emerged as a multiparty democracy with political freedoms. What’s the general state of democracy in Cambodia?

Faltering. You can still find opposition members in the National Assembly, but the ruling party has overwhelming political, social, and military power. The stubborn few parliamentarians who refuse to play along have been stripped of immunity. Right now several face prosecution. The royalists were the last rival to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), but they split in 2007. Many suspect the CPP orchestrated the breakup. In the 2008 elections the party further consolidated its power, facing only a hodgepodge of smaller parties vying for a few seats.

Radio and television are tightly controlled in Cambodia. Public dissent can also be dangerous. Journalist Khem Sambo and his son were publicly gunned down in the run up to the 2008 elections. He’d been investigating high-level corruption. A local human rights group has documented at least 40 extrajudicial killings by police, soldiers and officials in 2008 alone. I’ve witnessed the fear of Cambodian colleagues who have received threats. It doesn’t really matter whether these acts were sanctioned by the regime or were committed by party loyalists for personal reasons: Cambodians can see that violence happens to dissidents. It doesn’t take many deaths to make many feel it is prudent to keep criticisms to themselves.

2. What’s the status and impact of the genocide trials?

After years of negotiation, the UN managed to orchestrate the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, aka the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. The first trial just wrapped up. Kaing Geuk Eav, prison warden of notorious S21 prison, faces a life sentence. The verdict should be handed down in January.

The calculated barbarities of the Khmer Rouge touched every family in the country. Cambodians yearn for the airing of testimony and the public trial of those responsible. But many clearly weren’t satisfied by the limited opportunity for victims’ testimony, or the slow pace of the proceedings, which are not expected to end before 2015. After waiting three decades for justice, it’s easy to see why many are impatient. Cambodians see the high-profile accused perpetrators are old and frail. One already has died in custody. It’s anybody’s guess how many will be alive to face potential life sentences.

Many Cambodians aren’t convinced about the independence of the process. The trials have been plagued with financial trouble as donors struggle to negotiate funding amid corruption allegations against trial officials and concern about the impartiality of the proceedings. They have also been subject to a great deal of interference from the regime. This has led many to believe that the trials will not address the links between powerful figures in the current regime and the Khmer Rouge.

3. How’s the economy doing? Is there a risk of the “resource curse”?

Cambodia’s natural resources (old growth forests, precious and metallic minerals, and oil) are disappearing into the opaque maw of the ruling elite. Take forestry: Over 30% of the country’s forest cover disappeared in the first half of this decade. But accurate maps of what the regime sold and to whom remain hidden behind the tinted windows of the Forestry Administration.

In the 1990s, so-called anarchic logging was the problem. Under substantial international pressure, the government shut down those small operators. But logging didn’t even pause. It just became a military operation, under the pretext of developing the forests for agriculture. Global Witness has shown that close associates of the Prime Minister were involved in these dealings. Cambodia banned their reports and kicked the organization’s team out of the country.

The discovery of oil came relatively recently. Proven reserves are capable of generating an estimated $1.5 billion plus peak yearly revenue. When rights were negotiated in a secret bidding process, Chevron got the largest bloc. Whatever Chevron paid for the privilege doesn’t show up in the national budget. I don’t think anyone expects oil revenues will do much for the average Cambodian.

4. What’s the role of the international community, especially the United States?

The regime has been dependent on Western aid from day one, and knows that allowing the international community access to policy-making is a good way to raise revenue. The regime sees new revenue on the horizon, including from Chevron, and it has responded by closing some of these doors. The international community is having a hard time adjusting to this.

I’m not sure that the U.S. thinks that our assistance is effectively promoting democracy at the moment. Direct aid to Cambodia was blocked until 2007, a legacy of the Khmer Rouge era. In a quid-pro-quo, the US agreed to restore direct aid in exchange for greater protection for opposition leaders and civil society freedoms. It was an interesting move, but not very effective. Several vocal parliamentarians have had their immunity stripped. Although some U.S. congressmen have voiced some strong concerns at home, we haven’t frozen the aid.

Many suspect that U.S. competition with the expansion of Chinese ‘soft power’ in Southeast Asia helps explain why aid continues to flow. Although its ambitions aren’t clear, China has worked hard to make itself a more attractive partner to the regime, offering aid and investments with fewer strings attached. The U.S. knows this isn’t exactly a hard sell, and may be reluctant to use aid to foster democracy when it is trying to keep a seat at the table. The regime has loosened the conditions on its aid by encouraging two powers to compete for influence.

5. What about the World Bank? Has it played a positive role?

Many feel that the Bank hasn’t consistently monitored its projects on the ground, resulting in a lot of waste, and a lack of accountability. But the Bank’s strategy may be changing. Partly in response to corruption, it has frozen funding for several projects in the past few years. This fall, it scrapped a massive, underperforming land-titling program. It also officially protested the epidemic of Cambodian government land-grabbing. Many observers hope the Bank will seek much more accountability from the government in the future. It can certainly improve its relationship with civil society groups in Cambodia by becoming more accountable and transparent itself.

6. Cambodia is flooded with international NGOs. What sort of impact have they had?

The record of NGOs in Cambodia is very mixed. If you want to see successes, look at the sectors where aid compliments the government, like public health, education and infrastructure. True, the projects are sometimes wasteful. But this is money that the regime doesn’t have to spend, and progress it can take credit for. The picture is different in sectors key to the regime’s revenue and political control. Organizations working on governance, natural resource management or civil society keep getting out-maneuvered. Some great people have dedicated themselves to Cambodia for the long haul. Unfortunately, there are also a lot of well-intentioned Westerners who show up without the background, experience or language to match the regime’s politicking. This plays into the regime’s efforts to paint international campaigners as clueless meddlers. Resentment of foreign influence and national pride continue to alienate many Cambodians from the NGOs.

Locals Want More Say in Resource Development

By Im Sothearith, VOA Khmer
Original report from Washington
23 December 2009

(CAAI News Media)

[Editor’s note: VOA Khmer recently spoke with specialists in the field of natural resource management in developing countries and learned that Cambodiais not alone in struggling to use natural resources to benefit its citizens. The resource curse, where natural riches fail to help the poor, is a worldwide scourge, the global experts told VOA Khmer in numerous interviews. Below is Part 16 of the original VOA Khmer weekly series, airing Sundays in Cambodia.]

Local communities, civic groups, media and even law enforcement often have the least opportunities, if any at all, to get involved in the management of timber, oil, minerals and other resources, experts warn.

That means policies that are often set by international experts and the government are little understood by the people most affected.

Petter Stigset is a senior advisor for oil and development at the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, which works with Cambodian National Petroleum Authority.

Involvement by many groups can help shed light on how resources are developed, he said.

“To get the civil society, to get the media involved, to get NGOs involved, to try to find out what is actually happening, and to have a good and constructive dialogue with the authority, with the government, it’s really the most important,” he said. “Also, to be able to ask the right question and make sure that no damage is being done to Cambodians and the Cambodian economy.”

More local groups are becoming aware of their role.

“However, we see that participation of civil society and the public is limited in the drafts of bill, policies and decrees, in particular the policies and laws related to the management of natural resources,” said Mam Sambath, Chairman of Board of Directors of Cambodians for Cambodians for Resource Revenue Transparency. “I think the government should be encouraged to see the important role of the community and the public so that it provides the community with adequate opportunity to share its inputs to make the policies and laws accurate and to effectively protect the benefits of the country and the local community.”

Nguon Nhel, vice president of the National Assembly, said the government understands the importance of stakeholders, especially local communities. The government has encouraged the formation of groups to care for fisheries and forests, he said.

Even so, some groups say they have not had the influence they would like.

Ly Lim, chief of the Romeas Pon Mchul Forest Community, in Kratie province, has been trying to build local networks of forestry communities that might be able to lobby at the provincial level. So far, he said, communities have not had a chance to participate in decision-making “at all.”

Sroeun Mach is a representative of a minority Pnong ethnic community in Keo Seima district, Mondolkiri province, and a member of the National Network for Social and Environmental Impacts by Extractive Industry. In his area, the Cambodian Highlight Mineral Company, Ltd., has been licensed for gold exploration.

“I have never had an opportunity to voice my concerns,” he said. “When they came, they did not inform our local community. They came with their teams and security guards. We saw them digging near our [tropical] trees, from which we take wood oil for living.”

A representative of the company said it had twice discussed its operations with the community in an attempt to solve unforeseen impacts. It also allows villagers to collect from trees on sites where the company is licenses, the official said.

Even so, Sroeun Mach would like to see more engagement from his community in the entire process.

“I would like to request the government that before granting concessions to private companies to invest for the country’s development, the government should come down and study, so that our community can give inputs and be informed,” he said. “If the government does not come down to study and [continues to] allow private companies to do business, it will impact most of the ethnic identity in my Mondolkiri province.”

Cham Muslim Women Seek More Rights

By Pich Samnang, VOA Khmer
Original report from Phnom Penh
23 December 2009

(CAAI News Media)
Mann Fitas is a 43-year-old Cambodian Muslim living in the capital’s Russey Keo district. She has a husband and five children, and, like many Cham women, she is not satisfied with the role her gender plays in her religion.

“In strict Islamic law, wives do not have the right to work outside the house,” she said in a recent interview. “We are just allowed to raise children and look after the house, that’s it.”

Visits outside the home, even to visit relatives, must be conducted by permission, and when a marriage sours, she said, a woman has little recourse.

“No matter how angry a woman is with her husband, she cannot say, ‘I divorce you,’” Mann Fitas said. “We can only complain to the [imam]. But the right to divorce is entitled to the husband.”

Islamic law and the Quran are meant to have women and men compliment each other, said Matt Islamiyas, a university student in Phnom Penh. But in reality, she said, there are still some advantages for men.

“Talking about inheritance, a daughter gets only half of a son’s share,” she said. “In Kupol [the most important ritual in wedding], only men are allowed [to make a decision].”

Sons receive a larger inheritance because a man is expected to support a family after marriage. In a wedding, the bride’s father pays a dowry and hands his daughter over to her groom. If the bride’s father is not present, he is replaced by a brother or male relative, not her mother.

Men are given more weight as witnesses than women, too. Two witnesses in the wedding must be men, unless none are available. In that case, women can stand in as a witness, but there must be twice as many.

Sos Mousine, secretary of state for the Ministry of Cults and Religion, acknowledged a disparity among women and men in Islamic law but said it did not add up to discrimination.

“For example, a woman cannot be an imam leading a mosque, because, biologically, she menstruates, so this is already inequality,” he said.

“As far as Islam is concerned,” said Kop Mariyas, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Women Affairs, “reasons are normally not explained, because everything is already set and we just obey it, that’s all.”

The rights of women Cambodia’s Muslim women have improved, she said, and more and more Muslim girls are now attending school, with some even continuing to higher education.

Kop Mariyas, who is also the secretary-general of the Cambodian Islamic Women’s Development Association, noted that Islamic law and customs are not strictly practiced in Cambodia. There are also organizations that can help women achieve more, she said.

Meanwhile, there are Cham women who don’t fit the mold.

So Farina, a Cham project team leader at Documentation Centre of Cambodia, is currently studying for her master’s at the University of Ohio. She said in a recent e-mail that the rights of Cham women suffer because men have more power in decision-making.

“The community must empower women so that they can move forward,” she said.

Cambodia Bowed to Pressure on Uighurs: Rights Watch

By Heng Reaksmey and Sok Khemara, VOA Khmer
Original report from Phnom Penh and Washington
23 December 2009

(CAAI News Media)

Cambodia received nearly a billion dollars from Beijing the day after it deported Uighur asylum seekers, Human Rights Watch said, claiming China had pressured the country to violate its international agreements.

Twenty Muslim Uighurs were flown out of Cambodia on Saturday, a day before the visit of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who praised the government for its decision and offered a $1.2 billion aid package.

“When a member of the Security Council so flagrantly pressures another country to violate its international obligations, it’s a matter of concern not just for a handful of asylum seekers, but for the world,” Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement Tuesday.

The destination of the 20 Uighurs, who had applied for asylum with UNHCR, is not known. Two remain at large in Cambodia and are being sought by authorities.

“The Chinese government must be pressed as hard as possible to announce the location of the returnees, to allow access to members of the international diplomatic community, and to release them unless it produces credible evidence to show that each one committed acts that could be described as criminal in light of international standards,” Adams said.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak dismissed the Human Rights Watch statement.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith told the Cambodia Daily Wednesday UNHCR had a role in the deportation. The agency “kept the Uighurs for nearly one month and did not send them to another country,” the newspaper quoted him saying. “Two or three days would have been enough time.”

However, Adams put the responsibility with Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“Hun Sen’s action makes a mockery of Cambodia’s commitment to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to protect people who have a justified fear of persecution or torture on return,” Adams said.

I, robot ... I, drink

Photo by: Sovan Philong

(CAAI News Media)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:00 Sovan Philong

A group of beer girls toast a robotic bartender at the Asahi Robot Party on Friday. The exclusive beer-tasting party was held at that exclusive enclave for Cambodia’s rich and famous, the Skybar, located on the seventh floor of Sihanouk Boulevard’s The Place Entertainment Club. Well-known for their love of all things new, clean and robotic, the Japanese also don’t mind a clean, dry brew or two. The party heralded the launch of Asahi beer imported directly from Japan. Previously the beer was only available from Asahi partner breweries around the region.

Keeping watch on the Tonle Sap

Photo by: PHA LINA

(CAAI News Media)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:02 Pha Lina

A man stands next to one of two lion statues to watch the sun set over the Tonle Sap river earlier this month. According to Khmer tradition, the two lions stand in front of the Royal Palace entrance as a symbol of security, watching out across the water to protect the spirit of the palace.

Country set for fat prahok haul

Photo by: Pha Lina
Fish from the first week’s catch of the prahok season wait to be sorted for market at Trang Chom Reas commune in Russey Keo district on Tuesday.

(CAAI News Media)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:04 Khouth Sophakchakrya

THIS year’s harvest of prahok is expected to increase by 20 percent compared with last year, officials at the Fisheries Administration said Monday.

Last year, Cambodian fishermen caught more than 12,000 tonnes of fish used to make prahok – a crushed, salted and fermented fish paste that is a staple of the Cambodian diet. They are expected to reel in up to 15,000 tonnes of fish in the 2009-10 season, said Fisheries Administration Director Nao Thuok. The prahok fishing season began last week and runs until late January.

Nao Thuok said that during the annual fishing ban, which runs from June until October, the administration created 280 fish shelters and released millions of baby fish into the country’s natural lakes and rivers. There was also a crackdown on illegal fishing, during which 1.5 million illegal fishnets were destroyed.

Despite Nao Thuok’s optimism, local fishermen said inclement weather could end up reducing the amount of available fish this year.

Ou Noun, a 67-year-old fisherman in Russey Keo district’s Prek Tasek commune, told the Post that until now he had been unable to catch fish because of the overcast cool season, and that shortages had driven up the price.

“Until Tuesday, I sold fish for the making of prahok for 2,500 riels [about US$0.60] per kilogram,” he said, noting that commercial fishing had driven the local price up from last year’s asking price of between 1,200 and 1,500 riels.

Nao Thuok also urged farmers to stock up on prahok and smoked fish to reserve for times when they expect to be busy with other agricultural activities.

Workers sort fish by size and quality to sell in the market during the first week of prahok season in Trang Chom Reas commune, Russey Keo district, on Tuesday. The prahok fishing season generally peaks in late December and ends in late January.

Govt ends civil salary incentives

(CAAI News Media)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:04 James O'toole and Vong Sokheng

NGOs concerned about impact

THE government has terminated salary supplement programmes for civil servants, sparking concerns that public services, particularly for poor Cambodians, will suffer in the face of inadequate compensation for government employees.

Under such salary supplement programmes, development organisations had been bolstering salaries for civil servants in a range of sectors over the past several years.

“The termination of the … incentive schemes will apply to all cases across the complete portfolio of projects and programmes irrespective of the funding sources,” Minister of Economy and Finance Keat Chhon wrote in a letter dated December 4 and obtained by the Post Tuesday. “It is, therefore, applicable to all donor-assisted as well as [government-] funded projects and programmes.”

In justifying the decision, Keat Chhon explained that the government was concerned that the salary-supplement schemes could be an obstacle to wider civil-service reforms necessitated by the global financial crisis. The minister added that incentive-based pay schemes could be perceived as unfair.

Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith echoed these concerns Tuesday, saying that salary supplements that are not uniformly distributed “cause bad feelings in the workplace and lead to declines in productivity”.

Chan Theary, executive director of the Reproductive and Child Health Alliance, said the implications of the government’s decision were not yet clear, and that she worried about the potential consequences for the health sector.

“It seems like if this happens, the implementation at the grassroots level will be destroyed,” she said.

Niklas Danielsson, a child- and adolescent-health specialist at the World Health Organisation, said employees at health centres, which treat large numbers of poor Cambodians, already earn low salaries and could suffer from the policy change.

“We are concerned about the potential implications if salary supplements are removed, particularly in service delivery at the health centre level,” he said.

Asian Development Bank (ADB) spokesman Chantha Kim said civil service reform and a review of the government’s compensation system could greatly benefit the Kingdom. He cautioned, however, that a simple reduction in salaries could do more harm than good.

“ADB … shares concerns with other development partners about the possible negative impact the cancellation of salary supplements might have on the delivery of some essential social services, especially to the poor,” he said.

The ADB and other development organisations, Chantha Kim added, have requested a meeting with the government “to discuss measures to mitigate the negative impacts on social-service delivery”.

A World Bank document from 2006 that appraised a project including pay incentives for government employees, stressed the importance of civil service wages in promoting development and good governance.

“Perhaps the principal risk to the [National Strategic Development Plan] is the capacity of the civil service to deliver. Moreover, it is clear that low public sector wages provide a breeding ground for corrupt practices,” the document said. “At the same time it is apparent that low pay is a leading cause of Cambodia’s relatively poor standing on public sector performance.”

The value of the pay incentives proposed in the document was US$7.8 million, though figures were not available on Tuesday for the overall value of the salary programmes terminated by the government this month.

Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, said the government’s decision to end salary supplements can only be effective if it is accompanied by wider reforms.

“There have been many complaints by civil servants alleging that partisanship and corruption in government have reduced transparency and directed funding to the wrong recipients,” he said.

Officials from the Ministry of Economy and Finance declined to comment Tuesday.

UN was lazy on Uighurs: official

(CAAI News Media)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:04 Sebastian Strangio and Cheang Sokha

A SENIOR government official says the UN’s refugee agency did not act quickly enough to process the asylum claims of 20 ethnic Uighurs deported by Cambodian authorities on Saturday night, an act that has prompted a storm of international condemnation.

Speaking to reporters prior to a ceremony for the signing of aid agreements with visiting Chinese officials on Monday, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith accused the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) of using the Uighurs as political pawns.

“UNHCR is the laziest office in Cambodia,” he said. “If they [granted refugee status] within a few days, those people would have been moved to other places, but they were slow and kept them for about a month.”

He also accused the agency of leaking the story to the press in order to “beat a drum” against the government, forcing authorities into opening investigations into the asylum seekers.

The Uighurs, part of a group of 22 who had applied for refugee status through UNHCR, were detained by Cambodian police on Friday and forcibly deported to China the following night. Two Uighurs remain on the run.

When contacted on Tuesday, Kitty McKinsey, Asia spokeswoman for UNHCR, declined to comment on Khieu Kanharith’s comments.

Saturday’s deportation has provoked harsh criticism from international rights activists and foreign governments.

In a statement issued on Monday, the Swedish presidency of the European Union said it was “deeply concerned” about the deportation, adding that it showed “a worrying disregard for Cambodia’s obligations under international law”. The US government and UN agencies have also voiced outrage over the deportation.

On Tuesday, refugee workers called on international governments and the UN to pressure Beijing to ensure the Uighurs were not mistreated on their return to China.

“Seeing that they were under the joint protection of the government and UNHCR, [and detained] from a safe site identified by UNHCR, I’m sure UNHCR in China would feel a strong obligation to ask for access to these people,” said Sister Denise Coughlan, director of Jesuit Refugee Services, which was involved in the Uighur case.

She also expressed concerns for the two Uighurs who disappeared a few days before the deportation, saying she was “praying for their safety”.

Sok Vichea, director of the Cambodian Refugee Office at the Ministry of Interior, said he was not authorised to comment about the two Uighurs.

Also Tuesday, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping departed from Cambodia after a three-day visit in which he and local officials agreed to US$1.2 billion in economic aid, an amount that some critics have said was partially a reward for the sudden Uighur deportation.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu described such accusations as “groundless”, saying the Uighurs had violated both Cambodian and Chinese immigration laws.

“This aid has no strings attached,” she said during a regular news briefing in Beijing on Tuesday.


Subjects of drug trial relapse

Photo by: Tracey Shelton
Drug users prepare heroin in Boeung Trabek in this file photo.

(CAAI News Media)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:04 Chhay Channyda and Irwin Loy

SOME drug users involved in a controversial detoxification programme have relapsed and started injecting illegal drugs again, a day after they were released from a clinical trial that authorities declared a success, officials said Tuesday.

The news comes amid continuing concerns over the programme, which authorities have pledged to expand, and its use of a little-known herbal medication called Bong Sen.

An official with the National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD) confirmed that “some” of the 21 drug users involved had relapsed after their Monday release.

Neak Yuthea, director of the NACD’s Legislation, Education and Rehabilitation Department, acknowledged that crucial rehabilitation and integration supports necessary for successful treatment programmes are still lacking in the Kingdom. But he blamed the relapses on the communities to which the drug users were returned, not on the efficacy of the medication.

“What we worried about is that they may relapse because we returned them to meet their friends in their home communities,” Neak Yuthea said.

Bong Sen “is a detoxification drug, so these people have only been detoxified”.

Neak Yuthea would not say how many people had relapsed, but he did say officials plan to check on drug users who had participated in the 10-day programme.

One man involved in the controversial programme said Tuesday that he started injecting heroin again the day after his release.

“I want to stop using drugs,” said the man, who asked not to be identified. “But I’m around so many people using drugs. That’s why I started again.”

Others who were also released Monday said they believed Bong Sen was effective.

“After 10 days, I didn’t think of injecting drugs,” said another man, who said he had not gone back to using drugs.

David Harding, the international coordinator for drugs programmes with the group Friends International, said he was surprised to hear drug users had been returned to areas where they would be surrounded by other users.

“That is a very, very big pressure on a person that is newly clean,” he said. “To simply place people back in exactly the locations where they were previously shows an extraordinary faith” in Bong Sen.

Health professionals expect drug users to relapse multiple times on the road to recovery, said Graham Shaw, technical officer on drug use with the World Health Organisation (WHO), whose organisation has expressed “concern” over the trial and warned of a lack of crucial follow-up care.

“Usually in the assessment of a new drug, you would monitor a person’s condition for up to 12 months on a regular basis to see just how effective the medication is,” Shaw said. “Doing it for seven days would not constitute an assessment of a new drug.”

Court grills officials over border stunt

(CAAI News Media)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:03 Meas Sokchea

SVAY Rieng provincial court has questioned two commune officials in connection with an October 25 incident in which opposition leader Sam Rainsy led villagers in uprooting wooden posts close to the border with Vietnam, the officials said.

Pov Pheap, deputy chief of Svay Rieng’s Samrong commune and Sok Sam Ien, a councillor from Bavet commune, were questioned by the court Tuesday in connection with opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s role in uprooting the markers, which led to the removal of his parliamentary immunity last month.

Following the session, Pov Pheap said he was questioned for about two hours over the incident, and that questions focused on his interactions with Sam Rainsy and the opposition leader’s meetings with local villagers who joined him in removing the posts.

“I told the court that Sam Rainsy asked how people were and if people had received a good rice harvest. People told him they had not planted much rice because of [Vietnamese] land encroachments,” he said.

Sok Sam Ien was also questioned in connection with the incident, but told the court he did not know anything about Sam Rainsy’s actions because he had only organised the food for the group of Sam Rainsy Party officials who accompanied him to Samrong commune.

He added that a third man, Suk Korn, did not appear at court, citing health reasons.

Judge Long Kesphyrom did not comment in detail on Suk Korn’s absence, but said he would have to present a medical certificate to the court.

Sam Rainsy has also been summoned to appear for questioning on December 28, but has indicated he will not return from Europe for the hearing. In a statement issued Monday, he said he would “happily” let the court prosecute him in absentia, referring to it as a “kangaroo court” under the control of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

Cambodian soldier killed by mine at Preah Vihear temple

Cambodian soldiers stand near the Thai-Cambodian border in Preah Vihear wearing flip-flops. One Cambodian soldier was killed by a land mine near the disputed temple complex Monday.AFP

(CAAI News Media)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:03 Cheang Sokha

AROYAL Cambodian Armed Forces soldier stationed near Preah Vihear temple died after stepping on a land mine while patrolling at the base of the 11th-century World Heritage site, military officials said.

Meas Yoeun, deputy provincial military commander in Preah Vihear, said the Unit 7 soldier stepped on the mine near overgrown steps leading up from the base of the temple at about 3:30pm Monday.

“He was killed right after stepping on the land mine,” Meas Yoeun said. “We have never cleared mines in that area.”

Srey Doek, commander of RCAF Division 3, said he could identify the 28-year-old soldier only by his nickname, Khmom. He added that the soldier died shortly after arriving at the military health centre.

Though Meas Yoeun said he believed the land mine was a relic of civil war fighting, several land mine explosions taking place since the dispute over Preah Vihear temple broke out in July 2008 have sparked allegations that fresh mines have been laid recently along the border.

On October 6, 2008, a Thai soldier stepped on an antipersonnel mine near Preah Vihear temple, and a second soldier stepped on a mine while coming to the first soldier’s aid. Both lost their legs in the explosions, which took place at a spot that had seen an exchange of gunfire between Thai and Cambodian soldiers just days before.

The mines were later identified as PMN2-type antipersonnel mines by Landmine Monitor, an independent reporting group in Ottawa, Canada. Thailand has said it has never used such mines, but Cambodia has reported stockpiling them in the past.

Landmine Monitor reiterated its suspicion that fresh mines had been laid near the temple in its most recent annual report, which was released last month.

“It would appear from available evidence that this incident involved new use of antipersonnel mines, but Landmine Monitor is not able to determine who was responsible for the use,” the report states.

During a meeting of state parties to the Ottawa mine ban convention last year, Sam Sotha, head of the Cambodian Mine Action Authority, strongly denied having laid mines, saying that “the claim that we had contravened the most basic and fundamental tenet of the convention came as a great surprise”.

Vendors in Preah Vihear criticise relocation

(CAAI News media)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:03 Rann Reuy


ABOUT fifty street vendors in Preah Vihear province’s Srayong commune will be forced to move to a new market site by Friday, officials said Tuesday.

The decision comes from the district and provincial government and has been taken out of concern for traffic safety and public order, said Sath Sy, chief of Srayong commune.

“It is not acceptable that at Phsar Chas [the current market] vendors sell on the street,” he said, adding that the new site is only 300 metres from the old location, and that vendors will receive a stall free of charge for the first year.

But vendors at Phsar Chas say the new site is inconvenient and that they are concerned the relocation will hurt their business. Khiev Tam, 64, owns a piece of land rented by six vendors at the current market site. She said the new site is actually a kilometre away from Phsar Chas.

“I get money from the sellers, but now authorities force the vendors to move. I will lose income,” she said.

Kun Muy, a 49-year-old sweets vendor, added: “We are worried that there will be only sellers and no buyers if we move.”

Vietnam repatriates Cambodian beggars

(CAAI News Media)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:03 Tep Nimol and May Titthara

NEARLY 900 Cambodian beggars were repatriated from Vietnam by local authorities in 2009, officials said on Tuesday.

Nget Dara, provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, said a report from the Ministry of Social Affairs showed that Vietnamese authorities had repatriated 898 Cambodian beggars in eight waves this year.

He added that 603 children under the age of 18 were repatriated, and that 143 children were sent home after being involved in human trafficking – 84 of those were young girls.

“A poor standard of living forced them to leave home and cross the border illegally to beg in Vietnam,” he said. “They hear it is easier to find money there.”

Most of the beggars enter through the Bavet border crossing in Svay Rieng province, with most hailing from Chantrea, Kampong Rou and Bavet districts, he said.

He said that the report did not include totals of Vietnamese migrant workers who were sent from Cambodia, adding that the major concern was the repatriation of the Cambodian workers.

Heung Kheung, head of the Social Affairs Department in Phnom Penh, said the number of beggars returned to Cambodia had increased from 776 in 2008.

“We’ve cooperated with some NGOs to help [repatriated beggars] by providing vocational training, such as repairing motors and sewing, as well as providing a small loan to help them run a business in their community,” he said.

The Cambodian and Vietnamese governments signed a bilateral agreement on December 3 to increase cooperation in eliminating the trafficking of children and women.

Kraya evictees spurn terms of relocation

(CAAI News Media)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:03 May Titthara

A GROWING number of families who were evicted from Kampong Thom’s Kraya commune earlier this month have opted to forgo the plots of land they were offered as compensation, describing as too restrictive a clause that would require them to live on the plots for five years, residents and rights workers said.

Hundreds of families were moved to a relocation site located 7 kilometres from Kraya commune after their homes were cleared to make way for a Vietnamese rubber company. In return, each was offered a 20-metre-by-40-metre plot of land and an additional hectare of land.

Nhem Sarath, provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, said the number of families leaving the relocation site was on the rise, but he added that he could not provide a concrete estimate.

“We know about this trend, but we don’t know how many families have decided not to take the land because not all of them come to tell us,” he said.

But Sath Moeun, a 52-year-old military veteran and village representative, said he knew of more than 30 families who had left Kampong Thom to live with relatives in other provinces. He said he was planning to move to live with his brother in Prey Veng province, describing the compensation plot he was offered as “too small”.

Sok Chanta, 54, another veteran, said he did not believe the land-allocation process would be fair, and that he would not be able to afford the payment he thinks would be necessary to secure a satisfactory plot of land. Officials have denied that evicted families have been forced to pay anything for the compensation plots.

Santuk district Governor Pich Sophea said that he knew of only 25 families who had decided not to accept land compensation.

“They went back to their homeland in Kampong Cham, and the reason they didn’t want to get this land is because they wouldn’t be able to turn around and sell it. According to the rules, they have to stay there for five years before they can sell,” he said.

Child sex case: Woman, 26, accused of soliciting sex

(CAAI News Media)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:02 Tep Nimol and Chrann Chamroeun

A 26-year-old woman is in pretrial detention in Battambang province after being charged with soliciting child sex for clients, court officials said Tuesday. Moeun Socheata was arrested during a police raid on Thursday in Battambang’s Svay Por commune as she was arranging for men to have sex with two girls – ages 14 and 17 – at a local guesthouse. Complaints were lodged by the victims’ parents on December 15. Police said she confessed to having arranged for sex with underage girls for several years. “I charged her on Sunday, December 20, with soliciting child prostitution,” Kheuv Phalla, a Battambang court prosecutor, said. Born Vannara, deputy chief of Battambang’s anti-human trafficking bureau, said the suspect was believed to be involved in arranging underage sex for clients in Phnom Penh and Battambang, but that police were unable to arrest her due to insufficient evidence and a lack of cooperation from the victims. “Just recently we received two complaints from the victims’ parents [asking] to arrest her,” he said. If guilty, Mouen Socheata faces five to 10 years in prison.

Telcotech connects to new gateway with US

Tuks-tuks pass Telcotech’s new Phnom Penh office Tuesday.

(CAAI News Media)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:02 Nathan Green

Broadband firm says connections will improve despite setbacks

CAMBODIAN broadband Internet wholesaler Telcotech indicated Tuesday that it has connected Cambodia to an undersea fibre-optic cable linking Southeast Asia to the United States that is expected to bring cheaper Internet access to the country.

However, the ambiguously worded statement from Telcotech Chief Executive Officer Ludovic Duval did not say when the connection to the Asia America Gateway (AAG) went live, or give details on what is expected to be a wholesale offering. The AAG was switched on by the consortium on November 10.

In an emailed statement, Duval said: “As the member of AAG consortium in Cambodia, Telcotech is able to provide local telecom operators with all connectivity and facility of AAG. In terms of telecommunication infrastructure, Cambodia now benefits from the same level of integration as its neighbouring countries.

“The availability of the service will benefit the whole Cambodian telecom industry by providing highly reliable links and by immediately increasing the available bandwidth to cater with fast growing demand from end-users.”

Cambodia does not have a direct landing point on the 20,000-kilometre system that connects Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Vietnam, Guam and Hawaii with the US West Coast.

It must instead negotiate for bandwidth access from other members of the consortium that built the system, meaning its “level of integration” is not the same as in neighbouring countries.

Industry insiders have labelled the missed opportunity for a direct landing point a “disaster” and have questioned that the new offering will provide cheaper bandwidth or enhanced quality.

A Telcotech engineer, who asked not to be named, said in September that the consortium guaranteed access through backhaul agreements with other members, but acknowledged the terms would have been more favourable under a direct connection. Price points were established by the consortium based on the size of each member’s investment.

Other consortium members include AiTi (Brunei Darussalam), AT&T (the US), CAT Telecom (Thailand), PLDT (Philippines), REACH (Hong Kong), StarHub (Singapore), Telekom Malaysia (Malaysia) and VNPT (Vietnam).

The network, which cost around US$550 million, uses Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing technologies to provide a total capacity of 1.92 terabits per second (Tbps).

Cambodia’s involvement in the consortium has long been shrouded in secrecy. Initial consortium member Pacific Communications was removed in February 2007 to be replaced by Telcotech in October the same year.

However, by the time Telcotech – which is owned by Cambodian tycoon Huot Vanthan – joined the consortium, the cable’s design had been finalised, minus a landing point in Cambodia, the Telcotech engineer said.

Why a landing point was not negotiated has never been revealed. A consortium spokesman said the reason for Pacific Communication’s removal from the group of firms was “privileged information”.

Minister of Posts and Telecommunications So Khun said last month that it was removed because it was given the go-ahead to join the consortium by Telecom Cambodia, not by the government, and had violated Cambodian rules.

Pacific Communication was owned by Song Nimol, the wife of Telecom Cambodia then-director general Nhek Kosal Vithyea, also known as Victor, who was subsequently fired following corruption allegations involving revenues from an illegal international phone gateway.

Double-tax talks with VN on hold until 2010

(CAAI News Media)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:02 May Kunmakara

CAMBODIA will not discuss a Vietnamese proposal to end double taxation on goods crossing the border until 2010, Em Sophoan, undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Commerce, said Tuesday.

The Vietnamese trade ministry made the proposal at a bilateral meeting in early December in response to a complaint by the country’s exporters over tax rates of 25 to 40 percent that they said hinder access to the Cambodian market, according to a report by Viet Nam News.

The report said the Vietnamese trade ministry put forward a list of 32 essential items on which Cambodia should consider lowering tariffs.

“We have not responded to [the Vietnamese] yet,” said Em Sophoan, adding internal government discussions were under way ahead of further talks with Vietnam at the 12th Joint Commission next year.

“It is no small thing because it will impact our national revenue,” he said.

Ending double taxation would pave the way for increased cross-border trade in both directions, though Cambodia needs time to take a position on the issue, Ung Sean, secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said this month.

“We have never made a deal like this with any nation,” he said.

A government announcement Tuesday said that Prime Minister Hun Sen would lead a delegation to Ho Chi Minh City Saturday to attend a conference on investments in Cambodia by Vietnamese entrepreneurs.

Bilateral trade fell an annualised 29.7 percent in the first 10 months to US$1.049 billion, according to the Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh.

PPM ready to expand markets

(CAAI News Media)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:02 Ith Sothoeuth

PHARMACEUTICAL exporter Pharma Product Manufacturing of Cambodia (PPM) is aiming to expand the number of countries it exports to from 15 to 30, according to the company’s president, Hay Ly Eang.

PPM currently ships about 30 products, mainly to Vietnam and former French colonies in Africa, he said.

“I will sign contracts with dealers in another 20 countries,” Hay Ly Eang said. “Now we are waiting for the export licence from the ministry, which will take around four more months.”

Most of the new countries will be in North Africa, with French pharmaceuticals distributor CERP handling sales, Hay Ly Eang said, singling out Tunisia and Algeria as key markets.

The firm’s products – including anitbiotics and pain-relief tablets – have already been approved by health ministries in the target countries, meaning that an export licence from Cambodia are all that is needed.

PPM began exporting its products to Guinea-Conakry in 1997. Hay Ly Eang said growth was steady until 2006, at which point sales expanded noticeably, prompting him to aggressively target further export opportunities.

A 'very Cambodian' identity

Photo by: ELLIE DYER
Workers continue refitting Tuesday at Kingdom Breweries’ new facility in the north of Phnom Penh.

(CAAI News Media)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:01 Ellie Dyer

Kingdom Breweries says its marketing strategy will be all about the Kingdom

A “VERY Cambodian” identity is to form the core of the marketing strategy for Phnom Penh’s newest brewery, currently undergoing a US$4 million refit on the banks of the Tonle Sap river, according to its company director.

In a behind-the-scenes tour of the 65,000-square-foot former Hagar International soy milk factory, Peter Brongers, CEO of Kingdom Breweries Ltd, revealed on Tuesday what he said will be the secret of success for the new beer, which is scheduled to roll its first bottles off the conveyer belt in June.

The businessman, who worked in Thailand’s steel and jewellery industries before coming to Cambodia, said: “It was a dream I’d always had to make my own beer. I want to make it the best in Southeast Asia.

“It will have a very, very Cambodian identity. We are looking at producing lager, ales, and more seasonal beer – perhaps Kampot pepper and mango beer. We are trying to be creative.”

Phnom Penh-based marketing agency Bates 141 has been employed to oversee branding.

One of the more unusual ideas rumoured to be on the table is a label showing a dinosaur drinking beer.

“One of the ideas did involve a Stegosaurus,” Brongers confirmed. “But that process is still being undertaken.”

Bates 141’s CEO and executive creative director, Marianne Wooler, said the agency has been investigating Cambodia’s 16th- and 17th-century history to gain inspiration for the brand.

“The people who come to Cambodia are here for a little bit of adventure. They are looking for something different,” she said. “We want the brand to reflect that and be recognisable as Cambodian.”

Though refusing to go into detail about the potential label or the stegosaurus, she emphasised the importance of creating a strong brand early in the business process.

“It is very much a work in progress, but we are really happy with the decisions we are going with,” she said. “We hope we are doing something really cool for the country, which can help Cambodia feel proud of producing a world-class beer.”

While creative discussions are under way, a more traditional logo has been decided upon. It shows the words ‘Kingdom Breweries” on a dark blue background.

Work in progress
Work at the factory is also gathering pace, with specialist brewing equipment, water purifiers and 30 fermentation vats being brought in from countries as far afield as the Czech Republic and Australia.

Next year, the firm will import 500 tonnes of hops from Germany, Canada and France to help produce the boutique-style brews, which Brongers said should account for between 1 percent and 2 percent of the domestic market. Sales would be concentrated in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and the south coast, but Brongers said Kingdom was also aiming to export to Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

At the Phnom Penh site, space for brewery tours, a riverside mezzanine bar – with views of the Japanese Friendship Bridge – and a glass frontage revealing the brewing process are being constructed by 35 Cambodian workers.

Once brewing is under way, the firm is set to employ 100 Cambodians. A specialist German master brewer is to join the enterprise in February 2010.

Rice prices soared in past month

(CAAI News Media)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:01 Nguon Sovan

DEMAND from foreign markets has forced rice prices to soar over the past month, and worse is yet to come, leading rice analysts have said.

On Tuesday, Phou Puy, president of the Federation of Cambodian Rice Millers Associations, said that rapid rises in grain costs, reported by vendors and rice brokers, are the result of foreign demand pushing Vietnam and Thailand into competition to buy Cambodian rice.

He said that in the past month, the cost of 1 tonne of milled fragrant rice (first grade) had risen to US$880 from $780, with jasmine milled rice (second grade) up to $700 from $660, and poor-quality milled rice topping out at $450 from $400.

“There’s no way the prices will go down,” he said.

Yang Saing Koma, president of the Cambodian Centre for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC), said that unmilled fragrant and jasmine rice is also becoming more expensive, rising to $336 a tonne from only $288 last month.

“This harvest season, Vietnam has rushed to buy unmilled rice from Cambodia to process at home for export,” he said, predicting rice prices would rise 20 percent next year due to shortages.

Police Blotter: 23 Dec 2009

(CAAI News Media)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:02 Bun Tharum

Gentle tap leads to driver’s angry slap
A security guard working at Phnom Penh’s Calmette Hospital was slapped in the face Sunday by an angry driver. The driver had accused the guard of hitting his shiny Lexus SRX70 with a walkie-talkie. The guard, however, insisted he only tapped the luxurious, high-end vehicle lightly to inform the driver that he had driven onto the lot without a mandatory parking ticket. The situation, however, was defused, and cooler heads prevailed. With mediation from the guard’s supervisor, the driver agreed to apologise to the guard.

Alleged cable thief on the loose
Three men were accused of stealing optical cables in Kandal province’s Kien Svay district on Saturday, and one remains on the run. The police said the cable belonged to a local telecommunications company. The two men who were caught, both in their 40s, were identified as motortaxi drivers who allegedly participated in the theft to make a little extra cash. The pair were arrested after a company representative notified police. However, a third man allegedly involved in the theft remains on the run, authorities said.

Ex-girlfriend rats out suspected thief
A woman told police her ex-boyfriend had swiped jewellery from a Kampong Thom market stall. The man fled to Phnom Penh to be with his ex-girlfriend after the theft Thursday, only to have the woman go to police, officials said, adding that she went straight to the cops after the man told her about the crime. The man’s arrest happened on the same day he is alleged to have stolen the jewels.

Boy, 8, run over; mp gets vehicle back
An 8-year-old boy from Battambang province died after he was run over, allegedly by a car owned by a member of parliament. According to police, the lawmaker was a passenger in the car when it accidentally rammed into the boy on Sunday. After the accident, the vehicle was confiscated by police for further investigation. However, the lawmaker was able to recover his car after meeting with district and provincial officials, police said.

K Cham man accused of raping farmer
A 40-year-old man from Kampong Cham province’s Ponhea Krek district was arrested Saturday after allegedly raping a woman at knifepoint. Police said the suspect saw the victim alone on her farm and overpowered her using a knife. He fled the scene after the attack but was quickly caught after the victim complained to police.

Going down under with a purpose

Photo by: Pha Lina
Eng Netra addresses a crowd; she will return to the country as a doctor of philosophy.

Photo by: Pha Lina
Postgraduate students network at a farewell event for Cambodian scholars headed to Australia.

(CAAI News Media)

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 15:01 Colin Meyn

Promising Cambodian graduates and young professionals are heading to Australia to hone their skills

HUNDREDS of Cambodian students have left the country to study in Australia over the past 15 years. Some of them have entered Aussie universities as tuition-paying students, but a select group has received scholarships to study in postgraduate programmes abroad though the Australian Leadership Awards, Australian Development Scholarships and Endeavour Awards. Upon their return to the Kingdom, members of Australian Alumni Association (AAA) have been making waves in various positions within the public and private sectors. The impact of AAA members has been particularly critical in ongoing efforts to change the landscape of Cambodia’s private university system.

Hundreds of Australian alumni gathered last Thursday along with Australia’s Ambassador to Cambodia Margaret Adamson to say farewell to the 2010 recipients of the Australian government-funded scholarships.

The 38 students who will be heading south include representatives of various ministries, universities, private companies and civil society groups.

The students have varying goals for their studies, and they have all developed specific plans for how they will use their time in Australia to improve Cambodia upon their return.

“I will study technological development in order to help integrate technology into Cambodian schools and universities as they continue to develop,” said Sidaroth Kong. Not only do the students have experience and skills within their field of expertise, they also have soft skills and high English proficiency, which will allow them to integrate easily into an English university.

It is yet to be seen what sort of impact this year’s crop of talent will make on Cambodia’s development, but there are members of the AAA throughout Cambodia who are redefining quality in the fields of medicine, agriculture, academia and development.

Australian alumni Tia Phalla, vice chairman of the National Aids Authority, gave the keynote speech for the evening’s event. He has been working to build up the capacity of Cambodia’s HIV/AIDS prevention programmes, which have garnered international attention for their effectiveness. Also in attendance was Chhour Y Mengwas, who returned from Australia in 1995 and is now the director of the National Paediatric Hospital.

The youngest-ever recipient of the scholarship, Pheakkdey Ngoun, who was 20 years old when he left for Australia four years ago, is now on his way to study in America on a Fulbright Scholarship in order to develop a plan for how to ensure that Cambodia’s involvement in carbon-credit programmes provides a maximum benefit to Cambodian people.

Along with a number of other countries (see sidebar), Australia’s embassy has contributed to the UN millennium goals by providing scholarship for students to develop themselves in order to return to build the capacity of their home country.

The impact of these graduates can be felt in many of the countries’ development initiatives, including the booming private university system. While many universities are still plagued by low-quality education, unqualified professors and improper management practices from lecturers up to presidents and rectors, a group of young Cambodians has returned from Australia with a vision for what universities in Cambodia could be.

“In Cambodia you are taught to copy your teacher and do what they do,” said Kieng Rotana, who is the president of the AAA, founding president of the Cambodian Higher Education Association and current vice chancellor of Pannasastra University. “In Australia we were taught to discover our own ideas and engage in critical thinking.”

Kieng Rotana founded the CHEA along with Ich Seng and Ban Thero, who are chancellor and vice chancellor of Mekong University, as well as Meas Renrith, who is now vice rector of Build Bright University.

CHEA was formed as “a group of educators who could work together to form ideas for how to deal with problems and improve Cambodia’s education system”.

Ich Seng says that his vision for Mekong University was largely influenced by his time in Australia.

“We wanted to re-create the picture we had of Australian universities in Cambodia,” he said. In the school’s first year, many of the students weren’t ready for a curriculum that involved critical thinking and academic responsibility.

“We challenged students with difficult classes and created an atmosphere where cheating and corruption were absolutely out of the question,” said Ich Seng, adding that Mekong lost over 50 percent of first-year students because they couldn’t or didn’t want to manage the academic pressures.

Now Mekong is producing some of the country’s future leaders, particularly in the field of business.

One of the departing fellows, Chheng Sokunthy, is temporarily leaving her post with the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports. She hopes to return with the skills to help develop an oversight capacity for her ministry over the country’s higher education system.

“I want to help improve quality and management as well as the student experience for higher education,” she said.

While they are in Australia Cambodian students provide a great benefit to their host country, “Having unique perspectives at Universities in Australia makes the experience more enriching for everyone”, said Australia’s Ambassador to Cambodia Margaret Adamson.

However it is upon their return that the benefits of the program truly take hold; as the next generation of Cambodian leaders re-enter their country with a vision for the future and skills to make turn their vision into reality.